Consumers’ constitutional right to dignity is being eroded

31 August 2016
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Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi is planning to rob you of your ability to make your own lifestyle choices as a free adult. The health department seeks to ban smoking in ‘public places’, heavily regulate point-of-sale transactions for tobacco products, and hike sugar taxes, among its many other oppressive measures. Besides the infringement of our dignity, the unintended economic consequences which await the country’s poor will not be good.

At the World Conference on Tobacco or Health last year, Motsoaledi detailed how he intends to micromanage your intimate affairs, declaring that the government would ban tobacco vending machines, pay the SABC money destined for public health purposes, and that they “are now gunning for alcohol advertising”. Apparently the Minister believes that South Africans are unable to think for themselves.

The government evidently does not respect our right to make our own financial and economic decisions. Elsewhere, the government appears adamant on taking pension-related choices away from workers. This dual-assault on consumers and workers, who together represent the entire South African population, does not only violate our constitutionally-guaranteed right to human dignity but will also have disastrous economic effects.

When this busybody attitude of the government leads to bad consequences, it will try to blame consumers who simply participate in the market. As Frédéric Bastiat detailed in his work What is Seen and What is Not Seen, government intervention produces a whole series of economic effects, of which only the first is immediate and visible. The other, more relevant effects, are not seen. What will be seen may be statistics which prove the government has succeeded in socially engineering our behaviour, but what will not be seen would be the dire consequences throughout the economy: the tobacco and alcohol, and the sugar and salt industries. These may include job losses, delayed wage increases, and a lack of new employment opportunities, and will occur in the production, manufacture and distribution sectors. Big companies will obviously not suffer nearly as much as small enterprises, especially those in the hospitality sector. ‘Market failure’ will be painted as the culprit by those people who want to take your ability to choose away from you, when they themselves are to blame.

The Sympathetic Voters Movement, commenting on the tobacco point-of-sale regulations, acknowledges the good intentions with which the government is approaching our public health problems. However, it points out that the measures proposed would cost jobs and violate a host of consumer rights, some protected explicitly by the Constitution. The SVM correctly states that we have a right to health care, not ‘health control’.

Section 10 of the Constitution provides that everyone has inherent human dignity, and the right to have that respected and protected. More importantly, Section 1 of the Constitution states that South Africa is founded on the value of human dignity and the advancement of human freedoms. Former Constitutional Court justice Albie Sachs said human dignity is “the motif which links and unites equality and privacy,” which means that our dignity is centrally important to the realization of our other rights.

What greater violation of human dignity can there be than government treating us like perpetual children? They should not force us to adhere to its notions of healthy living, and that we are not ‘allowed’ to smoke in places where we have the explicit permission of the property owners? Does our worth as human beings not mean anything to the government?

The regulations not only violate our dignity, but the cornerstone of our democracy: the rule of law. These regulations were not passed by Parliament, yet apply to ordinary South Africans on a daily basis. Are we, smokers and non-smokers alike, prepared to give our power to decide, from pensions to buying sweets and drinks, to the government? I hope not, but if so, then this is a first step in what is clearly a slippery slope to oppression.

Author Martin van Staden is the regional director of African Students For Liberty and a law student at the University of Pretoria. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.



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